Monday, 21 October 2019

Rare Ruins of Maratha Kings

Ancient temples in Bharat, in the southern regions of magnificent country, are evidence of the high levels of artistry, spirituality and science which mark or history. The spirituality and religious fervour of the Hindu kings that ruled was the reason why we have these gopurams, sculptures, carvings with thousand pillared halls. These structures stand today and inspires us as it did our saints and poets who sang their praises.
On a two-day historical tour to Thanjavur, Mannargudi and Mahadevapattinam with Mystic Palmyra, conducted by historian Pradeep Chakravarthy, I was filled with gratitude and wonder. Gratitude that I could see a thousand-year-old Brihadeeswara temple today and wonder at the passion and devotion behind the vision. As a schoolgirl, skipping behind my father, then as a Bharata Natyam dancer, later as a patron of Bhagavata mela, and now as an author of a book on Thanjavur, I have made over twenty trips here and every time, this temple never fails to impresses me with a different perspective. In this blog I will share information some of which I had only read about and never seen, and some I was not aware.

According to my calendar, Raja Raja Cholan’s birth anniversary falls on October 20. (947- 1014 CE) So many legends surround this temple. The Nayaks and the Marathas enhanced the structure and today we see a temple complex with generous contributions from all of them. The front gopuram is built by the Marathas, as is the temple for Vinayaka. A Vinayaka idol consecrated by Raja Raja is seen in a small shrine behind the temple.
It was thrilling to be in the temple that day as it was Pradosham. We were allowed into the garbha graham for darshanam, thrilled to be within two feet of the Siva Lingam during archana. Unforgettable moments.

Thanjavur Palace , Durbar Hall, art Museum and the Library were mandatory visits.

The evening procession of the Utsava murti around the temple was accompanied by drums. We stayed back till 8.30 that night for Palli Arai Sevai. This is the last rite of the day when Siva enters the bedchamber of Devi. After Devi’s aarathi is done, She is taken inside the bedchamber in a palanquin and the doors close instantly. It is all over in minutes but what a beautiful experience.
Mannargudi Rajagopalaswami temple is vast. Again, we had excellent darshanam. An extra bonus was to be able to hold the golden infant Krishna for a second and pray for a fulfilment of a desire. The priest joked that as in real life, you gift a small amount when you visit a new-born, here too, that we must gift the infant some currency, which we all gladly did.

A many pillared hall inside the temple.

A Tulsi Brindavan inside had carvings and stood on a tortoise pedestal. Elephant heads were seen around the lower level. 

Mahadevapattinam was an eye opener. We visited Raja Gori, the memorial shrines of Maratha Kings. They are cremated here, and a shrine is built in that location. 

A Siva Lingam is installed for kings and a Devi idol is built for the queens. There were a few dilapidated shrines scattered around the place.
My heart bled to see the state of these shrines which were not only important for history, but also a tribute to the lion-hearted Marathas. We do not know whom the shrines belonged. Pradeep pointed out the specially manufactured bricks which were thinner than the conventional one. The structures were made of brick, stucco and lime. Tourists are not aware of this place and therefore there is no maintenance.

The last Maratha King Shivaji II (1855) had a better shrine.

The fort and Varaha temple built by Tulaja I who wrote the yakshaganam Sivakama Sundari Parinaya Natakam is situated here. No one visits here anymore. Many structures were gone and in its place is a coconut orchard. 

Tulaja's temple for Sri Varaha.

The Maratha Rajas were devoted to both Siva and Vishnu. They worshipped both and that is how Tulaja built the Varaha temple. It is very small, and the idol is also about three feet only. It is in ruins now, though a priest was at the shrine and performed aarathi. The walls of the fort still exist.

A slab of stone with carvings on one side and an inscription on the other continues to be part of the daily worship.

We proceeded to Orathanadu where one of the many chathrams built by the Marathas still exist. I have read about the chathrams, written about them but I never in my wildest dream imagined I would actually be able to visit the Muktambal Chathram.

These Chathrams are rest houses for pilgrims and doubles as a school and medical facility when required. Food was served to the tired pilgrims who would then proceed on their journey when they wanted to. Serfoji built this Chathram for his queen in the form of a chariot. 

It has beautiful carvings on the walls, and we can see the wheels (though half submerged in the ground), the elephants and the charioteers. It is in a state of sheer neglect. Why can the authorities not clean the premises and clear the bushes around it?

One trip some of us missed (because of traffic regulations) was the visit to the largest iron canon in the world, which has not rusted or deteriorated after centuries.  

It was a trip well worth it for me as it is relevant to my current interest in the history of Maratha Kings. Efficiently organised by Priya Thiagarajan, and with a bus full of friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic guests, a tour with Pradeep is a must for all those who seriously want to learn about our heritage.
Photos by the author.
#MysticPalmyra, #PradeepCharavarthy, #PriyaThiagarajan, #ThanjavurACulturalHistory

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Book Review One Foot on the Ground -A Life told Through the Body by Shanta Gokhale

Shanta Gokhale wrote the Foreword for my book Bhagavata Mela My Tryst with Tradition

Today is Shanta Gokhale’s 80th birthday (August 14, 1939). She is a major figure in my life and even though seriously occupied with her work, is always open and welcoming when I approach her. I met her first when I had begun writing for the Arts page of Times of India, The Hindu (Chennai) and Sruti (Arts magazine). When I pointed out that Carnatic musicians never got their due in national publications, she encouraged me to write major features on important artistes. The Times had generously allocated space for arts in sister publications ‘The Independent’ and ‘The Metropolitan on Saturday’. I was secretly very proud of the fact that she never felt the need to edit or correct my typed sheets of articles. My husband, children and I became close enough to spend evenings chatting endlessly about music and dance at her home. She held many chamber concerts at her home by eminent musicians. It was potluck on many nights. I learned a lot about music and musicians during those sessions. When I became involved with Bhagavata Mela in 1993, I told her that I am planning a trip to Melattur in Thanjavur to watch Bhagavata Mela. She immediately jumped and said she would like to come along. She told me later that Bhagavata Mela was the origin of Marathi theatre through Thanjavur Maratha kings.

My parents joined us, and we had a lovely trip. We went to Thanjavur to see the Big Temple and visited the Saraswati Mahal library. I listened amazed as she spoke to the Marathi scholars there who replied in their Thanjavur Marathi lingo. We also visited Tiruchirapalli, Srirangam, and Tiruvaiyaru. She never wasted a moment and kept writing copious notes. In the summer of 1986, she spent some time at our holiday home in Kodaikanal. She, a non-believer, accompanied me to the Meenakshi temple, bought a few cotton Sungadi saris and thoroughly enjoyed her stay.

There was a certain grace in her demeanour which I have rarely seen in other women. Her cotton saris sat well on her. Her smile came from the heart and flashed through her eyes. That smile was the only ornament she wore.

Throughout my ten- year journey with Bhagavata mela, I would update her on my work. She attended some performances whenever I invited them to Mumbai. She was very happy to hear about the Marathi Bhagavata Mela and attended all the three performances in 2002. She graciously wrote a Foreword for my book Bhagavata Mela My Tryst with Tradition(2018) and video-taped a talk on Bhagavata Mela. 

Her autobiography was a pleasant eye-opener for me. Although I have known her for so many decades (from 1980) she is a private person who never spoke about herself.  I am so happy that she was recognised for her work by the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi in 2018. I have the deepest love and respect for her and am ever so grateful for her beautiful presence in my life.

 Book Review

One Foot on the Ground -A Life told Through the Body by Shanta Gokhale

Shanta Gokhale is an author, translator, and columnist. The list of her works and accomplishments is impressive and amazing. Her magnum opus ‘Playwright at the Centre’ is an exhaustive history of Marathi Theatre from 1983 to the present. Despite her intimate connections with the world of music and maestros, theatre and thespians, dance and divas, literature and literati, cinema and glitterati, she herself remains modestly low profile and private. Over and above all this, everyone who has met her will tell you she is gracious, vivacious and accessible to all.

Therefore, a bare-all autobiography comes as a surprise. And what an unusual theme, of telling a story through experiences with her body, meaning the story of how her body parts lent themselves to shape the path of her life.

The book begins at birth and goes on about minor health drawbacks till her fearful battle with the big C. The very unusual setting makes this a very personal history. Personal it remains as she carefully trips around revealing details about her high-profile children actor Renuka and writer Girish Shahane and his wife, film editor Jabeen. She does not spare the others who had hurt her, though.

One does not know whether to smile at the humour that is the highlight of the book, for it cloaks the agony and distress of several crises of her life. One could discern that the wings of her intellectual and creative achievements would have soared higher but were definitely restricted by some events on one hand and by her relationships on the other.

She brings on the humour with her inimitable style and at the most unexpected moments. Sample this:

“At Bristol, Mary Barwell once asked me if I was pink inside.  I mean where your clothes cover you.” ‘No’, I answered kindly. ‘I am evenly dark inside and out. I can live in the Arctic all my life and still be this colour’.”

“The blood test first. ‘You will need a finer needle. My veins are difficult to get at.’ I sigh and wait for the inevitable. ‘Dhundo dhundo re sajna dhundo’ begins in my head.”

“Mr. Dey did not easily display emotion. What he displayed was the origin of all emotions, the sthayi bhava of the rasa theory, an inscrutable arrangement of facial muscles that distantly suggested the presence of all the nine rasas but never allowed them to show themselves.”

There are many gems like these scattered among the chapters. This book is a must read as a model of an ideal approach the painful happenings in life. To go through physical pain is bad enough but what of the attacks on the mind and heart?

One missed reading about her impressions of cinema and the skill of writing scripts for documentaries. May be volume 2 will record anecdotes about her interaction and experiences with celebrities will come out soon. The cover photograph is stunning. A few photographs on the back cover makes you want more. Parents, childhood, kids, friends, sister and student life in Bristol. All of that. Don’t let the ink dry in your pen, Shanta.

One Foot on the Ground A Life Told Through the Body by Shanta Gokhale Published by Speaking Tiger 2019

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Raghunath Manet Dancer Kalakshetra Dancer- A Review

Raghunath Manet Kalakshetra Dancer from France/Puducherry 

This is a review of Raghunath Manet’s dance performance which I covered when I was the Bombay arts critic of The Hindu (Madras Edition) for many years. It was published in The Friday Review of dated November 7, 1997. I had met him backstage then and as we are both from Kalakshetra, we had an interesting chat.
It was wonderful to meet him after twenty years, last December (2018) as delegates to the CID International Conference. He mentioned that he has performed only once in Mumbai. He regretted that he was never invited again. When I reminded him that I had reviewed his performance for The Hindu, he was surprised.
Raghunath’s performance at the conference was hailed for the energy and fury he unleashed in the Rudra Tandavam.
For his lecture, Raghunath spoke about the Devadasis of Puducherry. He dismissed the strict discipline of araimandi or demi plie stance of half-sitting in Bharata Natyam. I pulled him up privately for that comment later when he video-recorded a chat with me. I have always felt that dancers must learn about the importance of maintaining correct form and line of the body while dancing.
Raghunath is also a Veena player and lives in France and Puducherry and has been conferred many awards including the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman in 2017.

Group of Delegates at the CID Conference 2018

Raghunath Manet and Sailaja Desai -moderators for my Lecture at the CID Conference


 “I dance for me”, says Raghunath Manet, a Pondicherry -based dancer. Indu Raman reports on one of his latest performances in Mumbai recently.

It was an unusual Bharata Natyam performance by any standard. Titled “Shiva Tandavam”, it was performed by Raghunath Manet, Pondicherry-based dancer. The programme sheet did not disclose what was in store because it contained only the names of items without mentioning the composition, raga or tala. The curtain opened on a simple stage d├ęcor with a yellow silk drape, a large veena on the right and a few flowers scattered artistically on the foreground.
An artist dressed in finery and a turban made an entry playing an udukku while singing. Then a lady nattuvannar, a kanjira player and Venugopal, the main vocalist walked in and sang before they sat down. Then the dancer made an impressive appearance with Pushpanjali and Alarippu (Tisra). After a long raga interlude by the singer, Raghunath came and sat down in front of the veena. The next 15 minutes there was a brilliant exposition of Ghana Raga Panchagam Taanam played by the dancer. This was followed by the Tevaram Ponnar Meniyane and Ananda Tandavam Adinar danced with an explosion of energy that infused the adavus with ecstatic expression of passionate devotion to Nataraja, the Cosmic Dancer. With his finely tuned body, keen grasp of melody and rhythm and masterly control of his limbs, Raghunath conveyed his total emotional involvement effectively.
The item named Tala Shruti Laya came as an anti-climax when the percussionist took over the stage for a lengthy tala vadya session. The mridangam became a weak defense against the powerful tavil and the appealing novelty of the udukku.

Towards the end the dancer joined them and weaving in, around and between them, vocalising the jatis, challenging them and leading them on.

This would have been very impressive if it had happened only in this item, but Raghunath practically did the nattuvangam for himself throughout the evening. To the rasikas, it was not only a distraction, but also exposed the lack of coordination and preparation. The general unease during this item was also because the nattuvannar’s cymbals were strangely silent throughout. The tuning of the three different percussion instruments did not converge on an acceptable note either, thus emphasising the lack of a comforting and controlling agent like a tanpura.

The performance ended with a tillana (Behag). The Shiva motif lingered like a unifying thread even during the pure dance sequences (thirmanams). Raghunath Manet’s training under Kalakshetra discipline was evident in his sparkling footwork, strong bodyline (angashuddham) and consistent adherence to the basic posture (araimandi and natyarambham) A musician with a thorough knowledge of the intricacies of uniting dance with music, he is indeed a compleat artiste. It seems necessary to point out , however, that the dancer’s preoccupation seemed maximum utilisation of the space and to this end his compositions had a surfeit of circumbulatory overtures. This destroyed the grandiose structure and architechtonics of Bharata Natyam technique. 

The Alarippu, for instance, has defied the challenges of time and modern innovation and till today remains a model work. Its linear beauty, the gradual ascensions of tempo and attitudes that bespeak of devotion makes it an unparalleled item created by an unknown genius. Raghunath’s choreography had a plethora of jumps (utplavanams) which were not in any prearranged direction. The all-important adavus like ta din kina tom and kita thaka dari kita tom lost their meaning, clarity and importance when executed in every direction and in constant flux. The choreography was repetitive and many of the textbook steps like mandi adavus remained unused. The dancer also came dangerously close to the edge of the stage and the musicians, leaving the sensitive viewer nervously anticipating a slip.

Born in Pondicherry, Raghunath was initially trained by M.S. Nathan, a local dance teacher. He joined Kalakshetra to continue dance and learnt veena from the renowned veena Vidushi Rajeswari Padmanabhan. Growing up in Paris amidst the artistic fraternity expanded his horizon and spurred him into his career.

He worked with Chandralekha for four years before he set off on his own. Raghunath is now based in Pondicherry where he runs a dance school for orphans and disabled children. It was touching to know that dance helped these children to open up their minds and become more confident by merely learning how to improve their posture and stand erect.

Raghunath has this to say about his unusual packaging of the evening which smacks of suspiciously of being put together for a foreign audience. “I would do the same for any audience here or abroad. At this stage in my career, I have a right to choose what I perform. I never really choreograph my items. I don’t like them to be labelled as such. My dance will reflect what I feel, my spirit and the response I get from the audience. I sing, I say the jatis, speak to the audience and play the veena. In fact, I never use nattuvangam in my dance. I am in charge. So I control the accompanists too. I dance for me.”

Wednesday, 17 April 2019


Sharad Sathe at Sixty

This article is a tribute to the maestro was written by me and first appeared in SRUTI issue 99/100 Winter Bumper Issue.

                                                      Photo courtesy Sharad Sathe

On a warm Sunday morning in May, an exclusive gathering of musicians, music lovers and friends gathered to felicitate Pandit Sharad Sathe, a senior musician of the Gwalior gharana, on his 60th birthday. The invitees were regaled by Sathe and his wife Sunetra with three hours of and more of classy music. The only interruption was a brief interlude to accommodate a touching two-minute tribute paid by their daughter Smita Mahajan and a word of thanks for the distinguished audience.
The music that morning reflected the sophistication, grace and emotional overtones of the Gwalior gharana. Sunetra Sathe opened the sessionwith a forceful rendering of compositions in Jaunpuri and alaiya Bilawal. She had been on a self-imposed exile from the public stage for 12 years, but her music revealed her thorough grounding and involvement in the art.

Pandit Sathe’s recital was in the nature of a heartfelt offering of gratitude to his gurus. He seemed inspired by the presence of the octogenarian Pandit Sharadchandra Arolkar with whom he has maintained a constructive relationship for the past 26 years. The Todi which flowed from him was a brilliant display of grandeur and aesthetics. The musical grammar was correct, there was also emotion, or bhava. The quality of an inner harmony which gives richness and dimension to his music was also evident. He rendered a tappa with great felicity and concluded his recital with a tarana and a composition in Bhairavi.

The event helped recall how music brought Sharad Sathe and Sunetra together and has remained a binding force in their family.

Born in 1932 in Pune, Sathe was encouraged by his sister Kamala Ketkar, a musicologist, to learn under her guru, the young Dattatreya V. Paluskar. The gifted son of D.V. Paluskar is credited with simplifying the highly complex Gwalior gayaki and endowing it with ‘a depth of perception and a rich emotive quality’.  Sathe was in his teens when he began receiving instructions under Paluskar. As one of the more promising students, he enjoyed the privilege of travelling and performing with his master. “Over seven years, I had the opportunity to learn concert planning, for my guru could gauge the audience and give them exactly what they wanted,” says Sathe in admiration. And adds: “I remember an Independence Day concert in Indore in 1953. In the morning, Panditji had high fever. D.K. Datar, who was to accompany him on the violin, and I had taken for granted that the concert would be cancelled. But in the evening, my guruji asked to be helped onto to the stage and gave an unblemished recital, his spirit was admirable. In 1954, at a conference in Motihari (Bihar), he was scheduled to sing last. His turn came at three o’ clock in the morning. The audience was tired and listless.  Guruji began with a drut khayal in Lalit, an early morning raga. The audience responded with such renewed energy and sheer joy that it seemed that it seemed like a miracle.

The sense of bereavement at the tragic death of his youthful master still lingers in Sathe’s voice as he remembers the events leading to Paluskar’s sudden end. Paluskar had just returned from a tour China in 1955 as a part of a Government cultural delegation. On Vijayadasami day, he developed high fever, diagnosed as encephalitis, and collapsed within 24 hours.

Sharad Sathe was only 23 at that time and had graduated in science. His quest for another guru brought him to Bombay in 1956. He continued his musical training under Professor B. R. Deodhar, who passed away in March 1990. He was also a disciple of Vishnu Digamber Paluskar.
Venerated as a teacher and musicologist, he had done intensive study of voice culture under Dr. Douglas Stanley and Professor Hilas Engum. He was as well a prolific, scholarly writer of several books on music and musicians. He was, too, the founder of the Deodhar School of Music in Bombay.
In 1966, Sathe came under the spell of Pandit Sharadchandra Arolkar, who is today the revered doyen of the Gwalior gharana. Under Arolkar’s tutelage, Sathe blossomed into a mature musician acquiring polish and emotional depth. Notably, Arolkar has also bequeathed a veritable treasure house of rare and original compositions to Sathe.

Sathe has participated in many major musical events in India. His concerts have won critical acclaim, especially his majestic command over gamaka, meend and fast taan-s. He is one of the few exponents of the tappa, a song-form with a complicated structure. He is a guest lecturer at the Bombay University on the tappa compositions.

He has given concerts abroad too. In 1985 he performed extensively n the U. S. He served the London Kendra at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan as a resident lecturer for one year in 1986-87, and followed it up with a concert tour in 1988.

Sharad Sathe was until some years ago working in a creative capacity in an advertising agency. A specialist in calligraphy, he now freelances in creative designing.
A regular performing artist for AIR and Doordarshan, Sathe was awarded a Government of India scholarship in his younger days. In 1972, the Films Division invited him to lend his voice for a documentary on Vishnu Digamber Paluskar.

Sunetra studied music with Govindrao Desai, also of the Gwalior tradition. She has an interesting story to tell about her first meeting with Sharad Sathe. “The first time I saw him was at his concert. Half-way through the concert I just walked away, unable to enjoy the music!” Quips Sathe, cutting in: “Perhaps you were overwhelmed by my personality!” Sunetra gave up performing when the family responsibilities grew. Although she took up teaching science and mathematics in a school, she never gave up music.

Married in 1958, the Sathes have a daughter, Smita (dancer and vocalist) and a son Samir.

Sathe comes across as an enlightened musician who has been able successfully to bled traditional learning with a studied modern approach to life and music. On stage and off it, he projects sense of harmony and also conveys a shrewd inner determination which has stood him in good stead throughout his career of 40-plus years.
Says he; “Music has been the mainstay of my life. I am indeed very fortunate in my guru-s and I am content with the course my career has taken. I am not one to take recourse to gimmicks or pursue publicity. I believe that the satisfaction that good music can give, cannot be matched by anything in the world. These are the values I have been taught by my guru-s and this I have tried to impart to my children and students.”

Thursday, 24 January 2019

The Story Behind Sadguru Tyagaraja's Aradhana

Bangalore Nagarathnamma and Sadguru Tyagaraja

A review of the book The Devadasi and the Saint by Sriram. V. Publishers EastWest/ Westland-2007,2018

Sadguru Tyagaraja is revered as one of the Trinity of Carnatic music, (the other two being Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri) whose compositions have enriched our music with their intense devotion, erudition and meaningful lyrics. Every year, hundreds of musicians and devotees gather at his samadhi at Thiruvaiyaru (Thanjavur District) and sing his compositions. The serene surroundings of the samadhi on the banks of the Kaveri throbs with vibrancy and music fills the air. This year, (2019) Pushya Bahula Panchami, the day he attained moksha, falls on Friday 25th January. In the morning musicians will pay homage to his memory and sing the famous Pancharatna kritis (a group of compositions set in five ragas) in one voice. The event will be telecast live on all national channels and is observed by devotees all over the world.

The idol of Tyagaraja inside the Samadhi in Thiruvaiyaru taken in 1989

The background of the present building of the Samadhi and the Aradhana celebrations is recounted in detail in the fascinating book The Devadasi and the Saint, by Sriram. V, who describes himself as “a Chennai based entrepreneur and historian of Carnatic music and Chennai”.

It was the Devadasi Bangalore Nagarathnamma, a beautiful, erudite musician, dancer, and writer who was instrumental in building the samadhi and establishing the structure of the ceremonial Aradhana celebrations.

She valiantly fought a long and arduous battle against male chauvinism and the prevalent stinging prejudice against devadasis. She demanded equal respect for women in the music world when it was considered blasphemous for women to perform in public. Her life was a roller coaster ride where she this powerful and wealthy artiste faced penury in her last days. But she never gave up on her dedication to her patron saint Tyagaraja and her mission in life- a monument at his samadhi. 

The author has tapped many sources and collected invaluable documents to augment the veracity of the complicated twists and turns in this struggle. It is to his credit that he has explained the politics behind the events in an easy, lucid manner and with admirable impartiality.

The book has rare photographs of the era and we can see Nagarathnamma at various stages of her life. The editors should have taken care to avoid the several typos that affects the quality of this book of historical importance.

Sadguru Tyagaraja and the Devadasi dancers are both subjects close to my heart, so I was specially moved as this story recounts the decline of the Devadasi system and their fight for dignity and respect in society.

After reading this inspiring biography, one feels Bangalore Nagarathanamma’s spirit is also silently paid a tribute during Tyagaraja Aradhana every year.

[Also read:

The author at the samadhi (1989)